Wilson and the Peace Settlement

Under the armistice agreement, Wilson's Fourteen Points were the basis for the peace settlement with Germany and the Central Powers. This declaration of American war aims called for open diplomacy (an end to secret treaties), freedom of the seas, removal of trade barriers, impartial adjustment of colonial claims that recognized the interests of indigenous peoples, the application of national self‐determination in Central and Eastern Europe (eight of the Fourteen Points dealt with this issue), and the creation of an association of nations that would guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of all countries. This association of nations became the League of Nations and was always considered by Wilson to be the most important of the Fourteen Points.

The Paris Peace Conference. The Paris Peace Conference was held from January to June 1919. Wilson led the American delegation, which did not include any prominent Republicans. This was a major blunder in light of the midterm elections. Even with the fighting still going on, Wilson neglected to build on the support he had during in the war from both Republicans and Democrats. Instead, he actively campaigned for Democratic candidates in 1918 and his partisan strategy backfired — the Republicans regained control of both the House and the Senate, and the Senate would be responsible for ratifying any treaty that Wilson negotiated in Paris.

From the beginning, the peace conference violated the spirit of the Fourteen Points. All the decisions were made by the leaders of the victorious allies, or the Big Four, as David Lloyd George of Great Britain, George Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Wilson were called. Moreover, Britain and France were determined to see that Germany paid a heavy price for the war, while Italy insisted the conference adhere to the territorial changes promised in the secret treaty it had signed with Britain and France. A war guilt clause, which blamed Germany alone for starting the war, was accepted to justify reparations that grew to more than $56 billion. Further, Germany lost all of its colonies and some territory to France and newly independent Poland, and was substantially disarmed. These terms were hardly “peace without victory.” On the other hand, the principle of national self‐determination was generally recognized in Europe, even though the countries that lost land — Germany, Austria‐Hungary, and Russia — were not present. National self‐determination meant that peoples who shared the same language, history, and territory had the right to political independence. The new nations carved out of the old empires were Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Although Germany's leaders complained strongly that the harsh terms of the treaty violated both the spirit and letter of the Fourteen Points, they had little choice but to sign the treaty (June 28, 1919).

Wilson was willing to make major concessions to ensure that the League of Nations was included in the treaty. Article 10 of the League's charter was, in the President's opinion, key to the success of the new international organization. It called on all member states to respect and preserve the independence and territorial integrity of all member nations through collective action. Mindful of the concerns of Senate Republicans, Wilson agreed to amendments to the charter: The League could not interfere in domestic matters, members could withdraw on two‐years' notice, and regional agreements such as the Monroe Doctrine were exempt from League action. These changes were included in the covenant of the League of Nations that was attached to the Treaty of Versailles.

The debate over ratification. The Treaty of Versailles was submitted to the Senate for ratification in July 1919. It was clear from the outset that the Senate was bitterly divided over the League. While Democrats favored immediate ratification, there was a small group of Republican senators known as the Irreconcilables who rejected the treaty entirely. In the middle were moderates who favored participation in the League but wanted further modifications to protect American interests. Led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, these moderates were known as the Reservationists. Some historians divide the Reservationists into two groups — those favoring minor, interpretative changes and those, like Lodge, advocating major changes that required Allied approval. While the Foreign Relations Committee debated the treaty, Wilson impatiently embarked on a nationwide speaking tour in the hope that public opinion would put enough pressure on senators to support ratification. The President gave 37 speeches in just 22 days as he crisscrossed the country by rail, and the trip took its toll. Wilson collapsed on September 25 and suffered a major stroke a week later. For the rest of his term, he remained an invalid, doing only the simplest tasks under the supervision of his wife and physician.

The treaty was presented to the full Senate in November 1919 with 14 amendments, the most important of which limited the obligations of the United States under Article 10 of the League by requiring congressional approval of any American action. Wilson refused to accept the change and ordered the Senate Democrats to vote with the Irreconcilables to defeat the Lodge reservations. Although the treaty did eventually get the support of a majority of the senators, it failed to receive the two‐thirds vote needed for ratification. The United States entered into separate peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and never did join the League of Nations.